In 1976, when the minds of most devoted Americans were turned in anticipation to the celebration that summer of the bicentennial anniversary of America's independence from Britain, my mind turned to the celebration that same summer of an anniversary of a rather different sort: the centennial anniversary of the first complete performance of Wagner's epic tetralogy, Der Ring des Nibelungen, in The House That Richard Built in Bayreuth, Germany: the very first Bayreuther Festspiele.
At that time I was a fairly recent devotee of Wagner's mature operas, and word had reached me that NPR had in the works a celebration of that same centennial anniversary which was to include the broadcast of a complete performance of the Ring. In a flash of inspiration it came to me that a series of four programs along the lines of the popular Metropolitan Opera radio broadcast intermission features would not be out of place as companion pieces to the Ring broadcast, one each preceding the presentation of each of the four operas.
And so, without so much as an initial query of the powers that be at NPR, I set to work writing the four scripts, each complete with illustrative musical examples drawn from the London / Decca Solti recording of the Ring, and a month and a half later completed the project. I now faced the task of pitching my idea, and selling my magnum opus, to NPR, and for the very first time it occurred to me that I was, well, a man without credentials. In short, and not to put too fine a point on it, a nobody.
What to do?
The answer struck me almost immediately: secure an endorsement from Boris Goldovsky — opera expert par excellence, and mostly famous for his frequent contributions to the Metropolitan Opera radio broadcast intermission features — for both my idea and my scripts.
And just how did I expect to go about securing that endorsement? I hadn't a clue. But time was running short as producing entities such as NPR require scripts for projects such as this months ahead of airtime, and even now I suspected I was running up against the wire, and my immediate problem was, first, how to contact Goldovsky. I felt certain he, at very least, had to maintain an answering-machine-attended telephone in Manhattan, and so I simply called AT&T Information, and asked for the number, which number took me less than ten seconds to obtain.
With all the impetuosity of youth, I quickly prepared a brief speech to leave on the machine, dialed the number, and waited for the pick-up, recorded greeting, and start-your-message beep.
I never heard any of it. Instead, a very not-recorded greeting reached my ear.
"Moment!" followed immediately by a soft electronic click.
I had just been put on hold — by Goldovsky himself.
I panicked slightly. My brief, prepared answering machine speech wouldn't do at all in this circumstance. I was now on my own, completely exposed, and working without a net.
Did I say I panicked slightly? That's a lie, actually. What I did was break out in a cold sweat, followed instantly by an anxiety attack of truly prodigious proportions, and my first impulse was to simply hang up before Goldovsky came back to take the call. These were the days before star-69ing a calling number was a possibility, and so Goldovsky would never be any the wiser. No fingerprints left at the crime scene, so to speak. But before I could act on that impulse, he was back.
Warm and friendly.
How I concocted and got through my pitch to him is now a complete blur to me, and still a mystery of sorts, but it ended with an invitation by Goldovsky in the form of, "Certainly, my boy. Come down, and bring your masterpiece with you, and we shall give it a look," and by the tone of his voice, inviting and warmly enthusiastic, I knew the "we" was intended as neither royal nor editorial, but collegial.
And so it was early one spring afternoon I found myself in Penn Station after disembarking the express train from Philadelphia. I called Goldovsky from the Station to tell him I'd arrived, and would it be OK if I came over now. "Come!, Come!, my boy. Just in time for lunch. Door's unlocked. Walk right up," that delicious Russian accent making it all sound even more gemütlich if I may be permitted a German term here as I don't know the Russian equivalent.
Half an hour later, there I was, and there we were. Boris and me; Boris and me sitting across from each other over a rough wooden table laden with blini, sour cream, caviar, deli-sliced corned beef, coleslaw, Jewish rye, a large bottle of Frank's Root Beer, paper plates, paper cups, assorted plastic utensils, a couple of shot glasses, and a bottle of a foreign-brand vodka. I mean, how more Jewish-Russian could it all have been! (I didn't then, nor do I now, know whether Goldovsky was a Jew or not. But to me — a Jew to the bone, and with Russian roots on both sides — he seemed a Jew as have all Russians of my experience, were they Jews or not.) It was all perfect, and I wondered just how much of that plentiful luncheon table was there on my account as Goldovsky, I noticed instantly, was a bear of a man who looked like he could have put it all away himself with not the least assist from me.
Goldovsky had been on the telephone when I walked in, and we'd made our initial greetings silently, he gesturing me to sit at the goodies-laden table across from him while he finished his call. The call over, he immediately launched into a commentary on the substance of his telephone conversation, something having to do with a new production of some early Italian opera the name of which I can't now recall. This, for some reason, didn't strike me as particularly odd at the time. What did strike me as a bit odd, however — and most pleasantly so, I might add — was that Goldovsky spoke to me as if I had been a longtime professional colleague of his, and would understand and appreciate all that he was telling me. I of course didn't, but affected to indicate that I did by inserting appropriate-sounding grunts or knowing nods of the head in response to points he was making.
Apparently, I somehow managed to carry off that little imposture with some measure of success, for if Goldovsky suspected anything of my ignorance on the subject of that particular opera, he gave no sign of it, and we then continued our discussion along more general operatic lines for the rest of our lunch together, a memorable moment from which discussion I've previously recounted here.
When we'd both had our fill of the sumptuous table goodies, Goldovsky turned to me with a smile, and said, "Now, my boy, go sightseeing for a couple hours while I read what you've brought me. We'll then have a coffee or two together while I tell you everything that's wrong with it."
I think by that time I was thoroughly in love with the man.
A little less than two hours later, I called from the street to ask Goldovsky whether I'd had enough sightseeing. He assured me I had, and to come right back up.
"It's all just marvelous, my boy. Excellent work! We however have a few things to discuss. This part, for instance. Who do you think you're going to be playing to? Geniuses? Geniuses they're not, my boy, believe me. You must make the attempt to be more simple and down-to-earth with them, but without sounding condescending. And what's this nonsense? What's this all about?"
What this was all about was my notorious low opinion of conventional opera, and of Italian and Italian-form opera in particular, Mozart's operas excepted as always (as was Goldovsky, I, too, was, and am still, a near worshipper of Mozart; a point that had been made clear during our luncheon conversation). As was typical of me then as it still is today, in my script I'd made not the slightest attempt to conceal or soften my contempt for the art form; a contempt that somehow had not had occasion to make itself known during our lunch together.
Before I tell what happened next — happened with a rapidity that was literally breathtaking — I would like to offer the following in my defense.
From our very first contact, Goldovsky's demeanor, his tone of voice, everything about his behavior and actions said he considered me — a perfect stranger, a nobody, and many years his junior — a colleague, even an equal, and moreover, a colleague of longstanding, all of which conspired to make me feel far more comfortable and at ease in his presence than I had any right to feel; to feel even that a fair degree of intimate camaraderie existed between us which I had no right whatsoever to even imagine. And so when he asked me, "What's this all about?" I answered just as I would have answered an intimate comrade of longstanding, blithely, not to say astonishingly, oblivious of who and what I really was, and who and what Boris Goldovsky really was, and what his life's work meant to him and was all about.
"Truth be told," I began breezily (and I will never forget the words I then spoke), "I really don't much like conventional opera as an art form. It's for the most part a meretricious sort of thing; trash art, to put it bluntly. Strictly for the groundlings. And the very worst of it comes from the Italians, most of whom would have done better to ply their trade and talents within the extravagant entertainment salons of 19th-century European brothels rather than the theater."
Before the last words were out of my mouth I knew I'd made a serious mistake. Not in what I'd said, but to whom I'd said it. Just how serious, however, I never could have imagined.
Goldovsky flushed red to the top of his head, signs of a building anger such as I'd never before encountered transforming all his features. Slowly he rose to his feet, seemingly towering over me, and in measured cadences intoned, "Are you a crazy person? Who do you think you're talking about! You're talking about men of genius; creators of masterpieces; creators of great art; art such as the world has only seldom seen." And here with one hand he grabbed me by an upper arm while simultaneously with the other thrust at me my manuscript which I took in a sort of daze, lifted me bodily out of my chair, and started marching me toward the stairs leading down to the street. "You have no more business with me, and I'll have none with you. Goodbye!" he hurled at me in closing, and then all but heaved me down the stairs. The next thing I remember is my staring in blinking, unbelieving astonishment from the sidewalk at the closed street-front door of his building feeling, it was my conceit to imagine, much as Mozart must have felt at his treatment at the hands, or rather foot, of Count Arco, except that I was no Mozart, and Goldovsky something more than a mere count, and with far better justification.
Sad to tell, we never spoke nor did we ever meet again.
What's that? Did my scripts ever get produced by NPR that year?
Sure. In my dreams.